Will the real Middle East conflict please stand up?

Will the real Middle East conflict please stand up?

Presentation by Tony Klug, 12 June 2005, to London conference of the
Interreligious & International Federation for World Peace
(‘Initiatives for Peace Making in the Middle East’ and the role of dialogue)

I don’t know whether you have had a similar experience, but one of the problems I find in discussing the Middle East conflict with people is that often we’re talking about quite different things. Broadly, there are at least three distinct conversations going on at present, almost in isolation of one another.

One is about an oppressive military occupation that suffocates Palestinian rights, confiscates their land, restricts their movement and incarcerates them behind a grotesque wall. A version of this narrative accuses the Israeli government, through international proxies, of controlling the world media and the US government, and holds that the only solution is to isolate Israel and eliminate Zionism.

A second conversation is about an upsurge in anti-Semitism, spearheaded by an autocratic and sometimes fanatical Muslim world and spreading from there back into Europe, where it has always been a light sleeper. This, it is held, explains the hatred of Israel as a Jewish state and the attacks on Jewish targets. The solution is to stop the incitement, democratise Arab and Muslim countries and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism.

The third conversation, a lot more optimistic than the other two, is about the proposed Gaza disengagement by a “transformed” Sharon, the democratic election of the “moderate” Abbas, the mutual ceasefire, the Palestinian reforms, the prisoner releases and the renewed public commitments to the road map by the Israeli, Palestinian and US leaderships. “Never have I been so hopeful”, exclaimed one commentator recently.

So which of these versions is the right one? Well, I suppose that depends partly on where you’re standing. There’s an old adage, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that goes something like this: “If you were born where they were born and you were taught what they were taught, you’d believe what they believe”.

While falling short of a complete general theory, this adage goes some way to explain not just what we believe but why we believe it. Why we take up certain positions and hold them so fervently. But if we are to be more than just the products of our respective backgrounds, we need to be able to think and comprehend beyond our boxes. This is where dialogue can play a critical role.

The first dialogue encounter in this country in which I was involved was initiated in a London pub in 1984, when a small number of us, Palestinians and Jews, took the first cautious steps to start a conversation across the hostile gulf that had divided our two communities for decades. We soon found that we shared, apart from a ploughmans lunch, the opinion that it was time to stop shunning each other, or worse - spitting venom at each other - and to start talking to each other. We ended our lunch by agreeing to meet again and to try to pull in a few others.

This might not seem such a big deal today but, at the time, such an idea was considered very radical, even courageous, and some of those involved feared for their reputations within their own communities. So it was agreed that the meetings would be confidential. And so it remained for some eight years, with many ups and downs, until in 1992, following the high-level Madrid conference, we decided to come out of the closet and went public in the form of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue.

The group’s monthly meetings were not academic seminars between dispassionate analysts searching for supposedly objective truths. They were more of the fiery encounter type between activists who felt personally involved in the enduring conflict between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian.

We found we all had a great deal to say. The more difficult part was the listening. That took a little longer. And it’s probably fair to say we never really became truly expert at it. But most participants were genuinely keen to acquire an understanding of the others’ fears and hopes, perceptions and aspirations.

As anyone who has engaged seriously in dialogue would know, it can be profoundly discomfiting – especially at first – in that it requires participants to reconsider deeply held convictions, both about themselves and their putative enemies or interlocutors. But it is also a deeply humanizing process. It is, after all, easier to despise, humiliate and destroy an imagined stereotype than a fellow human being with feelings, frailties and hopes not so different from one’s own.

The main achievement, I would say, was the common recognition that there are not one but two historical perspectives - even if one’s own is inevitably the more valid! - and that it was important to understand them both. We came to appreciate that the case for one side was not the antithesis of the case for the other; that a severe setback for one side was not necessarily a powerful gain for the other; and that rejoicing at each other’s grief ultimately leads nowhere.

We discovered that dialogue is not about giving up one’s own identity or abandoning one’s own views, beliefs or values. But it does involve self-examination, maybe self-criticism, certainly a preparedness to modify one’s own perceptions. You know it’s working if it leads to mutual respect, trust, fresh insights, different ways of looking at issues, a spirit of creativity, and maybe even new ideas for resolving conflicts.

My first experience of dialogue, however, was not in this country but in Jerusalem in 1978 when I sat in on a two-day Israeli-Palestinian roundtable at the renowned American Colony Hotel. The encounter exemplified for me both the potential and the limitations of dialogue. By the second day, after a very stilted start on the first, there was evidence of genuine communication. Some of the Israelis shifted from their starting perception of the PLO as an unrepresentative terror group to acknowledging it as the legitimate leadership of an authentic national movement. The Palestinians, on their part, surprised even themselves in coming round to realise that the Israelis genuinely feared for their security and that proclaiming this fear was not just a cynical pretext to hold onto captured Arab land.

But the limitations of dialogue were also in evidence. My role at the encounter was to observe and analyse, and in an article written subsequently for New Outlook, the Israeli peace magazine that hosted the event, I included the following passage: “Time and again Israelis interrupted fellow Israelis to defend or explain one or another Palestinian position, despite the fact that Palestinians were present and well able to speak up for themselves. The tendency to patronise by even well-meaning Israelis is an unhealthy symptom of an occupation which has lasted too long [this was 27 years ago, by the way], and which has had an insidious influence even on those unsuspecting members of the ruling society who probably consider themselves immune to its effects.”

This brings me to some of the conclusions I have drawn from my involvement in these and other events over the years, which I would like to share with you.

First, owing to the fundamental structural imbalance, and despite certain parallels in perception and aspiration, there is an inherent and growing asymmetry in the position of the two societies. This is not only detrimental to present and future relations but also inimical to constructive negotiations and is one reason for the urgency of a Palestinian state.

Secondly, while important, dialogue is not enough. It needs to be supplemented by practical solidarity with the Palestinians’ plight and with groups in Israel that support their struggle for freedom, independence and human rights.

Thirdly, however well-intentioned, actions of third parties that are perceived by either Palestinians or Israelis as antagonistic to their basic aspirations, or hostile to them as a people, are likely to reinforce their respective worldviews of being misunderstood and of standing alone and thereby to complicate the prospects of resolving the conflict peacefully, to mutual benefit.

Fourthly, it is a self-evident truth that the two peoples are fated to live alongside each other, one way or another. Neither is going away. If the Palestinians fail to gain their place in the sun, the Israelis will never be left in peace to enjoy theirs. Conversely, the Palestinians will never win their freedom if the Israelis are convinced it will be at their expense. Each holds the key to the other’s destiny. Thus, for its own sake - but even more importantly for the sake of future generations - it is vital that the vilification by and of either people is brought firmly to a halt. This is something we can and should all be vigilant about.

Finally, the indefinite continuation of this tragic conflict is not inevitable. It is not as if there is a fundamental ideological or religious dispute between these two small, long-suffering peoples or an endemic historical enmity. Israelis and Palestinians have clashed – bitterly – because they have simultaneously aspired to the same piece of territory on which to exercise their self-determination. This is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been artificially superimposed on top. If the geographical circumstances had been different, it would not be so hard to imagine their relationship as more of one of alliance and mutual support. And it could still be. In many respects, they have much in common.

On the one side, all sorts of conspiracy theories and malevolent intent have been heaped onto the Zionist movement by its detractors, some of it giving off a familiar anti-Semitic whiff, not so different from that which played the decisive role in winning so many Jews to the Zionist cause in the first place. Conceptually, Zionism was a distressed people’s proud, if defiant, response to centuries of contempt, humiliation, discrimination and periodic bouts of murderous oppression, of which the Nazi holocaust was but the most recent and extreme. The Israeli state was the would-be phoenix to rise from the Jewish embers still smouldering in the blood-soaked earth of another continent.

The motive was the positive one of achieving justice and safety for one tormented people, not the negative one of doing damage to another people. Yet, in effect, this is precisely what it did do, and at some point Israelis and their supporters around the world are going to have to come fully and openly to terms with this.

On the other side, the Palestinians, likewise, did not set out to damage anyone. They merely wanted for themselves what – with considerable justification - they felt was their entitlement. While their Arab brethren were achieving independence in neighbouring countries, the Palestinians were paying a heavy price for losing out in the geo-political lottery. Dispossessed, degraded and derided, their original felony was simply to be in the way of another anguished people’s grand enterprise. Almost everything that has happened since then is in some way a consequence of this.

In conclusion, I would make the following observation. With notable exceptions, it is common for people directly involved in a conflict to feel passionately about their own cause and to see little or no justice or morality on the side of their adversary or to contemplate any solution other than the full satisfaction of their own demands. The challenge for the rest of us is do we merely line up with and echo the mantras of the side with which we instinctively feel an affinity, or is there something more useful we can do? My feeling, if we are to avoid the nightmare of endless conflict, is that we have an important role to play together in fostering understanding and helping both sides deal with the realities of today in a way that is conducive to a peaceful and fair solution that accommodates the reasonable aspirations of both peoples.

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Dr Tony Klug is a veteran Middle East analyst, formerly co-chair of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue and currently a vice-chair of the Arab-Jewish Forum.


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